Congressional Update – Week Ending April 13, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Authorization for the Use of Military Force. On April 12, prior to a confirmation hearing, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said that a proposed markup on new legislation authorizing the use of military force (AUMF) scheduled for next week would be delayed, but that the text would be released April 13 (though as of the publishing of this update it was not available). Corker has been working with Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) to craft a palpable AUMF that replaces previous authorizations in 2001 and 2002. The past two administrations have cited those AUMFs to justify expanding military strikes and raids outside of the original arenas—Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively—to places like Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and most importantly considering the possibility of new strikes, Syria.

J. Res. 58. Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) introduced S. J. Res. 58, which appears to be an updated version of S. J. Res 55 which they introduced at the beginning of last March. Like the previous version, this resolution, if it passes, would be legally binding and would make US military support in Yemen contingent upon the Trump Administration’s certifying that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are doing the following: Making “good faith effort” to resolve the war in Yemen; making efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there; and making efforts to reduce civilian casualties. This is a toned down version of S. J. Res 54 that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) forced a vote on last month. The fact that it was introduced again suggests that the S. J. Res. 55 may have been introduced in a hurry in order to give senators cover to vote down Sanders’ resolution and this current version will be the one the SFRC works on moving forward.

Res. 815. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced a resolution to commemorate Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence and, among other things, recognize it as a stable and flourishing democracy and to applaud the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

2) Hearings

Pompeo Confirmation Hearing. On April 12, the SFRC hosted outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, to hear his testimony as part of the confirmation process for the post of Secretary of State. Amidst the ongoing standoff regarding Syria and the continuing speculation about the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, it was anticipated that a steady dose of Middle East-related questions would be asked of the nominee. However, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was only discussed a few times and Syria was never a major line of questioning. Instead, Pompeo was consistently questioned about his general management abilities, relationship with President Donald Trump, and even his thoughts on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. In total, his performance in the hearing still leaves him with a difficult path for confirmation. With Republican Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky) already declaring his opposition to Pompeo and no discernable timeline for Senator John McCain’s (R-Arizona) return to Washington, Trump and the Republicans have to win over some Democrats, many of whom stand firmly opposed to Pompeo’s nomination.

Pompeo took a slightly milder tone on his thoughts about the JCPOA’s fate, but generally subscribed to White House’s opinion that the deal must be fixed; and if no agreement is reached on the president’s concerns by next month’s deadline, then the United States will reimpose sanctions, likely scuttling the deal. However, Pompeo added the caveat that, if confirmed, he would wage diplomatic efforts to craft an agreement the president and the other signatories approve even after the deal is effectively terminated.

The only other issue the committee broached that has an impact on the Gulf region was Pompeo’s position on the use of military force in places like Syria where Congress has given no authorization. While Pompeo agreed that a large-scale use of force would require an AUMF, he stood by the White House’s reasoning that a “surgical strike” that serves as a form of deterrence (like last year’s missile strike on a Syrian airfield) is justified under existing authorization.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Additions, Retirements, and Committee Shakeups. This week saw some major changes in Congress. In the Senate, the newest, and first female, senator from Mississippi—Cindy Hyde-Smith—was sworn in to occupy Senator Thad Cochran’s recently vacated seat. Because Cochran chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, the Senate GOP needed to replace him, and chose to do so with Alabama senior Senator Richard Shelby. Shelby has long chaired the Appropriation’s Defense Subcommittee and is a huge proponent of robust military spending, a trend that is expected to further boost defense spending in the coming years.

Meanwhile, in the House, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) announced this week that he will forgo reelection this fall and will retire in January 2019. This is a huge announcement for a Republican Party that was already facing myriad challenges to holding on to its majority in that chamber. Now, any GOP incumbents who are wavering on whether to stand for another term may conclude that it is better to retire than face the potential onslaught many forecasters are predicting. If House Republicans suffer enough key losses—whether in the form of having a slim majority or losing the chamber to the Democrats—implementing an agenda will be extremely difficult; indeed, it may be impossible.

Calls for Action, Restraint Come from Both Parties and from Both Sides of Capitol Hill. In the wake of another suspected chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime on the outskirts of Damascus, lawmakers weighed in on what the White House should—and should not—do to address the illegal actions taken by Bashar al-Assad against his own people. The more hawkish members of Congress—many of them Republican—like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John McCain (R-Arizona) and Reps. Mack Thornberry (R-Texas) and Mike McCaul (R-Texas) have supported calls for military strikes on Assad and his backers in Syria. Others, Republican and Democrat alike, are urging restraint until they have consulted lawmakers, who have the constitutional authority to issue an AUMF (e.g., Sens. Chris Murphy [D-Connecticut], Mike Lee [R-Utah], Bernie Sanders [I-Vermont], and Rep. Barbara Lee [D-California]).

Some, like top Republican and Democratic senators on the SFRC Bob Corker, Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) staked out other positions on the issue of Syria, advocating a response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, cautioning that President Trump only has limited authority to do so militarily, and calling for a comprehensive strategy to ending the fighting in Syria.

Democrats Pen Statement in Support of Palestinians. On April 13, Democratic representatives released a statement in support of Palestinians’ rights to peaceful protests in the Gaza Strip. While the quintet—consisting of Keith Ellison (Minnesota), Barbara Lee (California), Mark Pocan (Wisconsin), Hank Johnson (Georgia), and Pramila Jaypal (Washington)—urged Gazans to continue to protest peacefully, most of the statement expressed dissatisfaction with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It also applauded Israeli human rights groups for speaking out against the use of live ammunition against peaceful protesters.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

John Bolton Starts First Week with Personnel Changes. April 9 marked John Bolton’s first day as President Trump’s third National Security Advisor and he started his week off with a bang. He has undertaken a purge of the National Security Council, preparing to install hand-picked aides to key positions. Further, the suspected rift between his hawkish camp and the more pragmatic set of advisors like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and US military officials was already on display as the Trump Administration contemplated retaliatory strikes against Syria. Reports suggest that the military options delivered to Trump were not as aggressive as he or Bolton wanted, so Mattis and his team were tasked with crafting more options for potential strikes.

Mattis was asked multiple times about potential strikes in Syria during a budget hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on April 12. He was asked about whether the US would strike, what legal justification the administration was using to conduct such strikes, and whether or not the administration needed to confer with Congress about them. Mattis did not address the legal justification, just saying that it was in the president’s authority to carry out limited strikes. While he would not confirm or deny whether the United States would attack, he did say that if strikes were to happen, he would notify Congress, though he stopped short of saying he would ask for permission.

Trump Meets with Emir Tamim, Changes Tone on GCC Crisis. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Washington this week and met with President Trump, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan. The president touted the economic relationship between the two countries in terms of military and equipment sales while the Emir focused on the burgeoning economic relationship between the United States and Qatar. The two also thanked each other for their efforts against terrorism financing and the Emir thanked Mr. Trump for his role in trying to mend the rift between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

The friendly Oval Office discussion rebounded well for Qatar in Washington, with journalists quoting the president as saying the Emir is a “very big advocate” of anti-terrorism financing measures and noting how he and Sheikh Tamim are “working very well together.” This coincides with reports that President Trump—after initially siding with the Saudi-led coalition in the crisis—has come to realize that Qatar is a strong partner and that intransigence in solving the crisis lies more with the Emiratis than the Qataris. However, there were some who offered tempered expectations about what kind of resolutions President Trump can bring about to end the gulf crisis.

2) State Department

David Schenker Nominated to be Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs. After months of speculation, President Trump officially nominated a longtime Middle East scholar and former Department of Defense advisor, David Schneker, to take over as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near East Affairs. Schneker, who has most recently been serving as director of Arab Politics at a Washington think-tank, advised then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the George W. Bush Administration and, since then, has worked in conservative foreign policy circles. He is considered an expert on Egypt, the Levant, Hezbollah, and is ardently pro-Israel. Though he must be confirmed by the Senate, he will likely see little resistance as even Democrat-aligned think-tanks in Washington have extended praise for his work.

3) Cabinet

Haley Spars with Russia at UNSC over Syria. While Washington was holding debates domestically and consulting with international allies, Ambassador Nikki Haley was staging her own struggle in New York to hold Bashar al-Assad responsible for his latest attacks. The UN Security Council convened emergency meetings to address the chemical weapons attacks and considered multiple resolutions to establish commissions to investigate whether chemical weapons were, in fact, deployed against civilians. The United States and Russia, differing in opinion about strength and purpose of the language of the resolutions, wielded their respective vetoes, leaving the issue unsolved within the council. Haley channeled President Trump’s rhetoric, harshly criticizing both the Assad regime in Syria and its backers in Moscow and Tehran.

III. Judicial Branch

Trump Hit with Lawsuit Over Terrorism Report. Two organizations filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration this week in a California court. The plaintiffs—Democracy Forward and Muslim Advocates—are asking for a 2017 Department of Justice report to be retracted for what they argue is conflating Muslims with terrorists and ignoring other incidents of terrorism to inflate statistics that show Muslims in a bad light.

In the second paragraph of the first page, the quote “good faith efforts,” should just be “good faith effort” without an s.

In the first paragraph of the third page, the link to “Chris Coons [D-Connecticut]” goes to Chris Murphy’s twitter, a democratic senator from Connecticut.

On the fourth page, the quotes “very big advocate” and “working very well together” are from the Al Jazeera link “President Trump” in the last paragraph of the third page. The distance between the quotes and the sources makes it unclear where the quotes come from. It might be worth inserting the source again.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here